Inside Obama’s Stealth Startup
Fast Company: President Obama has quietly recruited top tech talent from the likes of Google and Facebook. Their mission: to reboot how government works.
For Eric Maland, the whole thing goes back to that San Francisco wedding. Mikey wasn’t there—well, wait, actually, Mikey was there. But Eric didn’t meet him at that point. Eric met some other folks at the wedding who told him they were doing some fix-it stuff in Washington, and it sounded kind of interesting.
And now we’re chatting about it in front of the White House security gate, where we’re waiting to talk with the leaders inside about why guys like Eric are now wandering around this neighborhood with MacBooks in their shoulder bags and code in their heads. These are the “new techies,” as longtime Washingtonians tend to say, but that’s somewhat imprecise. These are people whose pedigree in Silicon Valley gives them the whispered reputations of gods and goddesses. I look at Eric. He’s wearing a faded T-shirt; his sparse hair is seriously matted down. Did he sleep lately? Exercise? Shave? All debatable. “Ever wonder what you’re doing here?” I ask him. He was the 13th engineer hired at Amazon, the first operations director at Twitter. Like everyone else on the stealth team that President Barack Obama is amassing and deploying inside the government, he never imagined he would live and work in D.C. “I guess I just like to fix things that are broken,” he says, shrugging.
Then there’s Lisa Gelobter. “Oh, you’ve gotta hear my story,” she says. It’s later that day, and we’re walking near the Washington Monument under a searing midday sun. There was this call she got out of the blue last summer in New York, inviting her to some kind of roundtable discussion in Washington for tech leaders. Lisa had just spent time on the upper management teams at Hulu and BET. She decides, reluctantly, that she’ll go take the meeting, which includes this guy named Mikey as well as this other guy named Todd, and turns out to be in the Roosevelt Room in the West Wing. Then President Obama opens the door and surprises everyone, and over the course of 45 minutes gives the sales pitch to beat all sales pitches. They need to come work for him. They will need to take a pay cut, the president announces. But he doesn’t care what it takes—he will personally call their bosses, their spouses, their kids to convince them. The crowd laughs. But he gravely responds: I am completely serious. He needs them to overhaul the government’s digital infrastructure now. “What are you going to say to that?” asks Lisa.